Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here: https://hivos.org/sites/default/files/seeds_and_ideas-food_as_a_method_in_development_practice.pdf

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

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Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

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Resilience self-assessment by communities

At the Agricultural Biodiversity Community (ABC) meeting in Boxtel, Netherlands at the beginning of October, practitioners, farmers, and researchers from Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America came together and created a process for “Resilience Self Assessment by Communities.”

This was the fourth meeting of the ABC, and three working groups worked over four days on i) policy outreach, ii) open source seed systems, and iii) resilience assessment (the group I was involved with).

Why did we have a working group on resilience assessment for agricultural biodiversity? This was my understanding prior to helping facilitate the workshop:

  • There is an increasing demand from the international development community to ‘improve’ resilience of communities. Most communities, especially rural communities who are custodians of agricultural biodiversity, already have sources of resilience but assessment tools could help them identify and communicate this to external actors;
  • The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners is seen as an important and useful resource but with limitations for communities in a development context to use this themselves;
  • To share and synthesise knowledge and best practice amongst all the experts gathered here.

This matters because far too often external interventions, with altruistic motivations actually do the opposite of build resilience, and reduce diversity and erode local knowledge and culture that has maintained agricultural diversity for centuries (also the topic of my PhD).

Then there were two immediate contradictions to my initial understanding:

  1. Bioversity International, Satoyama Initiative, UNDP have been developing a toolbox for resilience assessment in agricultural biodiversity contexts based on the Social-Ecological Production Landscapes indicators (See also van Oudenhoven et al. 2010), and was launched at the CBD COP last week. So, what was the value added of our exercise?
  2. In the first session on the first day where we discussed setting the agenda as a group, many group participants said: “we don’t need a resilience assessment tool; we already do this in our communities and the last thing we need is some external perspective on what we already do.”

So, we threw our facilitation plans out the window.

In this first open session, many of the participants were asking what is Resilience anyways? The Thai and Ugandan farmer were saying that this is an English word and concept and might now be useful for them or their communities in their contexts.

We started by breaking down Why, How and What: resilience assessment?

WHY? We came to a shared understanding that what we wanted was a self-assessment by communities: for communities to a) identify and monitor sources and status of resilience in their communities for themselves, and b) in some contexts, to communicate to external actors and thereby possibly avoiding inappropriate development interventions.

HOW? Develop a process for communities to self assess resilience.

WHAT? The first part of this was to answer: what is resilience in agricultural biodiverse landscapes?

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Angoli cattle farmer Elizabeth telling a narrative about resilience in her community.

We listened to the narrative of our Ugandan farmer colleague, who rears Angoli cattle and the group drew this story on large sheets of paper. She told us how if she loses one cow due to some misfortune, her community will give her five in return. And she will of course do the same if something happens to her friends’ cattle. Our Thai friend, an agro-forestry farmer, then told us how she does agro-forestry because ‘she is lazy’ and it’s so easy to let the fruit and vegetables grow without her input. Her livelihood depends entirely on her forest. In a community context, she depends a lot on the connections she has with her extended family and neighbours, who all specialise in different products and share their wealth with each other. Finally, our Indian colleague led a narrative of why we need to assess resilience.

The first day ended with a shared understanding of what resilience meant to us, and why we, in our own communities, wanted to assess it.

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Identifying resilience attributes in agricultural biodiversity landscapes.

Our next steps as a group were to use the drawings to draw out attributes that were important to the custodians of the landscape. We used sticky notes on the big flipchart sheets for this. At the end, we had more than a list of attributes, but an understanding of what we valued in this community, and “what made it healthy and strong.”

 Taking a step back, we created a mindmap of the Process we were in the middle of, and what this might look as tool to share. Here is our mindmap:

1. Why is an assessment needed? 2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.  3. Telling the Story 4. Identify attributes 5. Link to Action 6. Reflection

1. Why is an assessment needed?
2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.
3. Telling the Story
4. Identify attributes
5. Link to Action
6. Reflection

 

The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is now in the process of pulling together resources to populate each of these steps with the expertise of the members of the group. For example, from MELCA in Ethiopia, experience with Eco-Mapping, and SeaRice, with community mapping. We are preparing a web-launch of this tool early 2015, which will link to other great resources, such as the RA workbook, a new E-learning course on Resilience Assessment by SwedBio to be launched soon, and the Satoyama tools.

Many of us left saying that we had achieved much more than we had ever expected. Farmers and practitioners left the workshop saying that this is definitely a tool that they can use in their communities. We will start field trials in Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Peru, India and other countries early 2015.

As a researcher studying resilience in agricultural biodiversity landscapes, I left thinking that we achieved a milestone in co-creating a process that is accessible to communities and that we made a contribution in aggregating existing tools assessing resilience in agricultural biodiversity contexts, moving towards a specified assessment. We look forward to connecting this to the many other ongoing initiatives to assess resilience.

On a personal note, I found the workshop very challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Despite dedicating my work to smallholders, being a lover and advocate of wheats, millets, pulses and everything else, at the end of the day I am a young Northern female scientist. And my voice, especially at the beginning without any personal trust behind it, held very little legitimacy in this context. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. But, it makes it very difficult to contribute, let alone facilitate a co-creative process like this. Over time, as we got to know each other, these barriers broke down. But wow, it was humbling! I am so grateful for an incredible learning experience, where I also started a process of finding a space for my own voice in this critically important issue of conserving agricultural biodiversity that we all share a passion for.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

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